One of the best places to be in almost any company is a job in or around their sales departments. Sales are a company’s lifeblood so those that can directly influence those sales usually enjoy higher pay and more job perks. However, nothing is for free right? So the trade-off is you typically have less job security and work longer hours. If you don’t bring in the numbers to meet your sales quota you’ll be out of the job before long. One thing you definitely can’t do is “coast” in a sales job. IT sales jobs are no exception to this rule. IT sales engineering roles do tend to offer a bit more job security (if you know your stuff of course) but you sacrifice some of your pay for this security.
I’ve worked in many different jobs during my IT career of 14 years. I’ve been a consultant, post-sales engineer for a reseller, Network Engineer for a financial firm, college tech, and a few others. My very first IT sales job was with my current employeer, Cisco, back in 2000. Before this I was addicted to hands-on network engineering and troubleshooting. I was a bit leery, to say the least, of giving most of that up and moving into a technical sales role. Well, after 9 years of doing just that I can tell you that without a doubt I made the right decision.
Of course technical sales is not for everyone, but if you like presenting to audiences, planning with groups of people, architecting solutions, and generally are a social person then it might be for you. I’ve compiled a top 5 list of skills that employers are looking for and that you’ll need to be successful in a security sales engineering career.
Remember this is for a sales engineering role, not an ops engineering role. I note this because the skill sets between the two are significantly different. I’ve worked each role type during my career and have enjoyed both. Ops engineering focuses more on hands-on configuration and troubleshooting ability whereas sales engineering focuses more on design and technical selling.
I’ve focused this article specifically on the skills needed to be a solid security sales engineer. I chose to focus on security mostly because that is top of mind for me right now and also because there isn’t much information on it published. The job market for this type of role is pretty small when compared to the generic security engineer job market or the IT market as a whole. That can create instances where there is a lot of competition for the few jobs that are available, especially in this economy.
So here are the top 5 skills I think you’ll need to ace the interview and land that security pre-sales engineering job.
Skill: Presentation, written, and verbal skills - Basically you have to be able to communicate with people in a way that would make them want to talk to you again. I’m being tongue in cheek here but it’s basically true. Have you ever sat through a presentation where the presenter was awful? Well, you don’t want to be that guy to your customers. The secret to a good sales engineer is your ability to build trusted advisor status with your customers. Trusted advisor status is unquestionably something that you have to earn from people. You can’t be too cocky or it will turn them off but you also can’t be unsure of yourself or they won’t trust you. You should be able to answer most of their questions “Johnny on the spot” but also be prepared to tell customers when you don’t know the answer and refrain from making answers up to maintain the perception you know what you’re talking about. If you obtain a reputation of dishing out wrong information your credibility is toast and so is your career.
One of the main ways you build credibility is by being able to communicate your knowledge effectively and efficiently to a technical or non-technical audience. You also have to be successful at doing this regardless of the delivery mechanism chosen by the customer. Delivery mechanisms vary from small group PowerPoint presentations, live product demos, online webex meetings, webinars, email, conference calls, and larger group lecture presentations. (This means you’ll have to conquer any stage fright fears you may have. :) The two key skills of the group would be PowerPoint presentation skills and verbal skills.
Skill: Security architecture and design experience - Of course you will need to be proficient in security design. A good sales engineer is constantly balancing risk mitigation with usability in their designs. The trick is to make security as transparent as possible to the business and where it can’t be made transparent you need to be able to justify to the customer why it still makes sense. Ideally, this means you posses the knowledge to produce an end-to-end, defense in depth, security architecture. Broad security skill sets are what is being looked for in a pre-sales security consulting gig. For most companies this will include a solid base understanding of routing and switching. Gone are the days where security consultants don’t need to understand R&S. A strong R&S skill set can make you stand out in the security job market. The other hot skill set right now is compliance knowledge. Knowledge of how to tackle PCI, HIPAA, and privacy laws is in high demand.
Skill: Knowledge of the security solutions landscape and industry trends-
To be successful in a security sales engineering role you have to be aware of what types of solutions are out there. You don’t have to possess a deep knowledge of each, just an awareness. Perhaps more importantly you need to be able to spot how businesses are absorbing these security solutions. Are they emerging, stale, core, or dying? When these solutions are used by businesses what are the results, how hard was it to implement, does it work, what issues are common with it, what are its strengths. This type of knowledge will help you become a trusted advisor to your customers. Also, don’t forget to keep current on the latest laws and compliance regulations that will affect your customers and the security landscape.
Skill: In depth knowledge of the products that you will be selling-
This skill is core to the job and most likely the one that will be scrutinized the most in the interview process. The amount of knowledge expected of you will vary depending on the seniority of the position you are applying for. Bottom line is you need to know your stuff, with as much depth as possible. If you can wow them with your knowledge of their backplane and CPU design do it. If you have experience in getting multiple devices to either collaborate together or just work in the same environment tout that knowledge. You’ll be asked everything from datasheet type product knowledge to configuration questions. Keep in mind that most interviews are designed to take you deeper and deeper into the technology until your knowledge base runs out. Don't get stressed because of it, it is expected that at some point you will stop being able to answer the questions they are asking. Whatever you do, don't start making answers up. If they are asking the questions then they know the right answers, you wont be able to fool them. I harp on this because I see it time and time again with candidates during interviews.
Skill: Personal Integrity and strong ethics-
The glue that binds the other four skills together and really differentiates a good engineer from a great one is personal integrity and strong ethics. It is imperative that a sales engineer always put the customers long term success first, even above the company that you are selling for. If you try to over sell your products and solutions I guarantee you that the customer will find out what you have done. At that point you can kiss any trusted advisor status you used to hold with them goodbye. And most likely they will tell all of their peers in the area, creating a snowball effect working against you. Your personal integrity and ethics is something that, when nurtured over time, pays back huge dividends both personally and monetarily. It has always been the case that people like to work with people that they trust and respect. When you move jobs, most likely those people will continue to want to work with you. This loyal account base is extremely valuable to potential employers. Many employers will present candidates with scenarios that are designed to determine a person’s values, integrity, and so forth. For the most part if you always keep the customers best interests in mind when answering you’ll be on the right track.
So, these are the tops 5 sales engineer skills as I see it. Let me know what you think of them and if you think other skills are just as important. Do you agree that the sales jobs in almost any company are the most highly compensated and enjoy the most perks at the expense of job security?
Check out the Top 10 technology skills that are still in hot demand, even in this economy
The opinions and information presented here are my PERSONAL views and not those of my employer. I am in no way an official spokesperson for my employer.
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Go to Jamey’s Blog for more articles on security.
Jamey Heary, CCIE #7680, sits on the PCI Security Standards Council- Board of Advisors where he provides strategic and technical guidance for future PCI standards. Jamey is the author of Cisco NAC Appliance: Enforcing Host Security with Clean Access. (Check out all of Jamey Heary's books from Cisco Press.) He also has a patent pending on a new DDoS mitigation technique.
Jamey sits on several security advisory boards for Cisco Systems and is a founding member of the Colorado Healthcare InfoSec Users Group. He is an experienced speaker who is recognized as an expert in network security architecture, regulatory compliance, and routing and switching. His other certifications include CISSP, CCSP, and he is a Certified HIPAA Security Professional. He has been working in the IT field for 15 years and in IT security for 10 years. Jamey is currently a Distinguished Systems Engineer at Cisco Systems.